Sawmill employees from Houston Forest Products finished work for the last time on Friday.
HFP has operated in Houston 36 years, producing 260 to 270 board feet of lumber annually, and shipping it to the U.S., Asia, and some within Canada.
HFP opened in 1978 through a partnership of Eurocan Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. and Weldwood of Canada Ltd. At that time the sawmill employed 220 people and was designed to utilize the growth potential of the Ootsa Public Forest, around Ootsa Lake and Tatsa reach.
Friday marked the beginning of the gradual shut down.
The planer is set to close May 23, but might run into the last week of May to finish clean up, said West Fraser Operations Manager John VanderEnde.
“We will virtually have consumed everything we brought into inventory,” he said, adding that shipping lumber will carry into June.
As for the equipment, VanderEnde says West Fraser will auction much of it off in late-July or August at the HFP site.
“The date isn’t confirmed yet,” he said. “The entity that runs the auction will also deal with the disassembly.
“I’m expecting that it will be winter before we finish up completely,” he said.
Asked whether the HFP site is sold, VanderEnde said no.
“I haven’t had a lot of interest in terms of outright purchase, but we haven’t really been trying to market it either,” he said.
After the site is cleared out “we’ll be looking at our options. There’s a few ideas about maybe LNG pipe staging, etc., but nothing has really been confirmed yet,” he said.
Asked how things have been since the closure announcement in October, VanderEnde said he is “very happy with how it’s gone.”
“The first week was really bad. There was a lot of trepidation over the first two to four weeks, but things started to settle and I am extremely happy with how the folks have adjusted to it.”
“The mill has run well, and it ran safely,” he said.
“All in all, I’ve got tremendous amount of respect for all the employees and all the staff. Everybody has gone through some very difficult times and they’ve handled it very maturely,” he said. “I wish everybody the best.”
Mayor Bill Holmberg said that from what he’s seen the transition period was quite positive.
“I have to say West Fraser has done a good job of trying to place their employees. A lot of them have gotten jobs in other divisions, including Smithers. Quite a few people are going over to Canfor once they’re done and then some people are taking an early retirement package,” he said. “They’ve done as good a job as they could do at looking after their employees.”
At the last Community Services Pillar meeting April 11, West Fraser Transition Coordinator Lori Saretsky gave statistics about the workers.
Saretsky said 68 workers didn’t have work lined up after HFP, 51 would be employed at other West Fraser mills, and 27 workers are retiring. Sixteen workers quit and ten have work outside of West Fraser.
It’s unknown how many will move out of Houston, but of the West Fraser transfers 16 have work in Smithers, and 17 of the 26 who quit or found other work are staying in Houston.
Commenting on how HFP’s closure will impact the community, Mayor Holmberg said “we’ll see.”
“It’s not going to be great, but I don’t think it’s as bad as everybody says,” he said.
“I know we will survive.”